Deputy National Rural Health Commissioner Announcement, Wagga Wagga on 12 March 2021 – Australian Government Department of Health


Media event date: 

12 March 2021

Date published: 

16 March 2021

Media type: 



General public


Look, it’s great to be here in Wagga Wagga with the Rural Health Commissioner Professor Ruth Stewart and Senator Perin Davey. We’ve got a special person to introduce to you, which I’ll ask Professor Stewart to do. An exciting day for us. I’ve had a week on the road with Professor Stewart, and we have been looking at issues around health in regional Australia. And with the increased focus on people wanting to come to the regions, it’s more important than ever that we have the services that people expect and deserve in the regions. And so, quite often, we focus on the negatives, but what we’ve seen over the last week are a lot of dedicated, hardworking medical staff delivering those services. And so, I might just head straight on now to Professor Stewart, and she can explain to you why we’re here.


Okay. So this is a really exciting day. As Minister Coulton said, we’ve been waiting since my appointment in the middle of the COVID crisis last year to appoint the Deputy Commissioners for the office of the National Rural Health Commissioner, and it gives me very great pleasure to introduce Dr Faye McMillan, who is Wiradjuri Yinaa.

She lives in Coolamon just to the north of Wagga. That’s why we’ve come to Wagga today, and she grew up in Trangie up in central New South Wales, where we were earlier in the week actually.

Dr McMillan is a pharmacist, and she has been a leader in Aboriginal health, particularly in Aboriginal allied health, for a long time now.

So I’ll just ask her to come up now. This is very exciting.

What the role of the Deputy Commissioner, the role of the Deputy Commissioner is to assist me. I’m a doctor. I’m a GP obstetrician with a lot of rural and remote experience. But I need deputies to help me engage and understand the issues for allied health practitioners, because just as we need doctors in rural communities, we really, really need allied health people, and that’s what Faye is going to help me do: to work out, to formulate advice for the Minister Coulton and the Minister Hunt, how to increase and improve the allied health services for rural and remote Australia.

I’ll hand over to Dr McMillan now.


Thank you, Professor Stewart. Thank you. Can I firstly thank the Ministers Hunt and Coulton as well as Professor Stewart.

You know, coming from Trangie, it is a very humbling experience to be put onto the national agenda and recognising the significant contribution that allied health professionals have to health service delivery for regional, rural and remote Australia, and I think this opportunity that the Commission has taken to support the Deputy Commissioners to become an integral part of the voice that the work of the Commissioner is doing, the ministers, but certainly for the people that choose to live and work in rural, remote and regional Australia, that they deserve to have their voices heard at the highest level.


There’s some serious challenges in terms of rural and regional health. What do you see as the scope of your role in trying to correct some of those issues?


The scope of the role is to work with the Commission to certainly make sure that there are authentic voices and experiences being heard and what can we learn from what we’ve already experienced and how do we move forward. The challenges are going to exist.

I think 2020 proved to us that, you know, every plan needs to pivot and be agile, and I think that is what we are looking to see; how can we do that to effectively meet the health needs of our communities so that they are feeling that they are, you know, as valued as any other member of society. And we are willing to work and do the hard yards to make sure that that voice is authentic.


Is the challenge getting particularly Indigenous people to access a lot of health care, allied health care. Is that sort of something you see yourself as trying to address as well?


I certainly see it as part of it. It’s not going to be all, you know.

Apart from being an Aboriginal woman, I have health skills and a number of years of experience in the allied health space, in educational institutions and seeing what are the challenges and why do they exist.

Obviously, we did see 2020 also brought up the Black Lives Matter campaign and things like that. But we do really need to be listening to what are the issues that are facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia and how are we addressing them effectively, and sometimes, that is really hard conversations. But I believe in the work of the Commission to have those difficult conversations and how we meet those challenges.


I know it’s early days yet in your new role, but, you know, what are some of the things you are expecting to hear from allied health professionals in regional and rural Australia?


The educational opportunities of how do we not only attract people to train in regional areas or through regional and rural partnerships, but how do we do that effectively that allows communities to have confidence that they are going to be able to have sustained relationships with their health professionals; and understanding how we do that: what are the models that might be applied to allow us to create potential new avenues that haven’t been considered or that have been considered and weren’t right at that time but maybe we are now?


And what do you think is maybe the biggest challenge facing the Murrumbidgee at the moment in terms of health care?


I think the Murrumbidgee is a large footprint.

It’s very difficult to generalise because each of the communities across the Murrumbidgee are unique and distinct in their own, and they have their own needs.

How the Murrumbidgee Local Health District and the work of other partners rise to those different challenges will certainly be one of the challenges that this role will face with the Commissioner about how do we do that, what are we looking at, because as we know, one size doesn’t meet the needs of all of our citizens.


And what are you hoping to- finish up your time as Commissioner, what would you like to have accomplished by then?


Hard question. I think to genuinely be a good or deep listener to what are the concerns that are going on so that I can authentically report those back through the Commissioner and then to the Ministers that are making those decisions about how the health of rural, regional and remote Australia is being addressed.


So it’s more of the fact-finding sort of role?

Do you see the NSW Government’s inquiry has revealed well known in terms of staffing levels issues like that. Do you see yourself as trying to address those issues or trying to find out more about the problem?


I think the question is, how do you eat an elephant? And that’s one bite at a time. So I think that’s the approach. It’s going to be a mixed method of how we are going to be approaching this. But I think, as you said, it is a known challenge, and what we do is how do we start those dialogues and keep those dialogues going so that people do want to see themselves in an environment such as the Murrumbidgee or any other regional, rural and remote environment in Australia.


As a regionally based Senator, the only Senator based west of Queanbeyan, I know firsthand what it’s like dealing with rural and regional health issues, and I’m so excited about the announcement of today’s Deputy Commissioner to work with the rural and regional Health Commissioner.

And it just shows our Government’s commitment to addressing the issues that are facing regional areas, but in a holistic way. Because it’s not just- health is not just doctors, nurses or hospitals. It is the whole gamut of their health needs, and by having an allied health professional up there at the top table with the Health Commissioner, it means that we will hear how the linkages work.

Because in rural and regional Australia, you never see as good an example of the need for the holistic health management as you do in rural and regional areas. When you have the pharmacists, you have the doctors, the occupational therapists and the psychiatric services all working together to provide the best possible assistance and service for our regional populations.

So, I welcome Faye and her announcement. I’m very excited to sit down with them today and hear more about what their methods will be to provide the best input, but also how I can assist them as a Senator representing regional Australians, to make sure that we make the most of this fantastic initiative that our coalition government has put into place with the rural and regional Health Commissioner.


You’re talking about being the only Senator west of Queanbeyan. We know what those problems are, you know, we’ve heard for years that there’s not enough staff, there’s not enough facilities basically. Are we hopeful that this might help actually address some of those problems, or again, are we just finding more problems?


No, I’m absolutely convinced that this will help us address the problems, because as you quite rightly say, we hear about the problems all the time.

What the Rural and Regional Health Commissioner is going to allow us to do is hear about the solutions, and then we can actively start putting in place solutions. Because people are looking at regional Australia through a different lens; it is far more attractive, and why wouldn’t you want to live in the regions?

You’ve got fresh air, you’ve got open space, and once people realise that we’re taking the issue of health services seriously, we are absolutely committed to addressing it.

We’ve got the regional GP services, CSU in the Murray-Darling Medical Health School Network, which is fantastic.

We’re trialing several different methods of health service delivery throughout New South Wales at the moment. These are all steps on the pathway in the right direction, and as Faye said – I love the analogy – you eat an elephant one bite at a time, and we are starting that work already.

The Health Commissioner is going to help us get through a lot more of it and we’ll hear the solutions, and we’ll work out how to put it in place.


Now that the announcement has been made, I’m very excited to have Doctor Faye Macmillan as the Deputy Rural Health Commissioner.

Particularly proud because she comes from Trangie, in my electorate, and we were there earlier in the week looking at the collaborative model in that area, that we’ve christened the ‘Four Ts’.

So, that’s a collaboration across four towns: Trangie, Tottenham, Tullamore and Trundle.

Today here in Wagga Wagga, we’ll be catching up with another of our innovative trial sites, and that’s what we call the Snowy Valleys Trial, and that is based around Tumut, Tumbarumba, Adelong and Batlow.

It’s in its early stages. So, we’ll be having a meeting today with the proponents, with Murrumbidgee Health, with some of the doctors in that area and the local councils.

And so, what we have recognised is that the model of having a general practitioner come to town and setting up and staying for 40 years and retiring is probably not going to be lasting much longer.

So, we are working on a collaborative employment model, not only with GPs, but generalist doctors with a broader range of experiences and training, but also in collaboration with Allied Health.

So, nursing, physio, pharmacy and building that team approach and so while we’re here, we’ll be also catching up to see how the Murrumbidgee model, which preceded the five trial sites, that were announced in the budget.

It’s a little bit more advanced and very interesting to see now that it’s actually in its early stages of operation, how that’s going, because these models aren’t the Government’s models.

What we are doing as the Federal Government is supporting solutions that the local communities have come up with.

We are obviously very keen for them to succeed. But we are looking at other areas, not only in New South Wales, but right across Australia, where we may be able to help do this and look at a completely different way of delivering health services.


I know it’s early, but the Snowies model. Has that progressed at all or is this just- are we still waiting for that that to start?


It’s a bit like building a house.

You do a lot of work in the foundations before you actually have anything to see, and the success of these models really depends on what’s not visible.

You know, linking the IT, working out how staff are going to be paid, who’s the primary employer, things like that.

So, it’s important that that’s all done before we come up into the public.

And so, with the Snowies, we are in early stages. Yep.


These models, you know, they’re really innovative, probably more of a long term solution.

We’re hearing a lot of issues everywhere rurally, but here, people being turned away, people having to bring their own bandages, a lot of things have come to light in the rural health inquiry. You know, what do you think can be done right now to address things in the short term?


Well, the challenge we have with right now is what we’ve been doing to fix the problem right now has exacerbated the problem.

We’ve been paying locums exorbitant fees to fill in gaps in the service of health, and so what we’ve actually done is developed a whole industry of being locum doctors, and we’re rewarding people for coming part-time, and we’re paying them more than people who are actually committed full-time.

So, part of what we’re doing with these models is that local health districts are using some of those dollars, instead of paying out-of-towners to come in and fill in a gap, actually creating a better- a more financially rewarding and better supported environment for people to go here.

So, we just got to be careful that we don’t exacerbate the problem by trying to come up with a silver bullet fix.

But, you are right, we do need to fill in those gaps.

There’s some innovative things happening where we’re seeing some larger city practices actually partnering with country ones so that if the local GP wants to have a couple of weeks away, they can send someone out, the city doctor gets some experience in the country.

But we’re not encouraging that locum model.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the locums have played a very, very important role. I’m not personally against locums, but that system has not helped overcome the problem we have in the long term.

Thank you.




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